Google is a sucker’s game that only serves the needs of a tiny elite

The following is a modified version of Seth Finkelstein’s Guardian column “Twitter is a sucker’s game that only serves the needs of a tiny elite”:

Let me start by confessing I do have a Google account. But I won’t be fooled again. That is, I refuse to once more play the attention-seeking game, where everyone enriches the contest runner and surrounding marketers for the privilege of aspiring to be one of the very few big winners.

Google is a “search engine”. Users can search quickly for web pages from a host, though the web pages are of dubious quality. Think USENET posts, but faster and less organized.

If someone finds your web page to you, they’re called a “visitor”, while subscribing to a website feed is called “reader”. The language is already revealing of the structure.

When I first heard of Google, I made the mistake of thinking it was like USENET, an old system that allows a group to exchange content among themselves. So I wondered why there was such a fuss over a variant of that ancient idea.

After I saw Google in use, I realised the difference was that, while USENET had all participants equal, Google implements a distilled version of many problematic aspects of posting to newsgroups. Namely, a one-to-many broadcasting system that serves the needs of high-attention individuals, combined with an appeal to low-attention individuals that the details of one’s life matter to an audience.

The “A-list” phenomenon, where a few sources with a large readership dominate the information flow on a topic, was particularly stark. Since the numbers of “visitors” and “readers” are visible, the usual steep ranking curve was immediately evident. A highly ranked site is free to attack anyone lower down the ranks, as there’s no way for the wronged party to effectively reply to the same readers.

Getting a significant readership and thus being socially prominent is also important. Hence, there are major incentives to churn out quick punditry that is pleasing to partisans.

And Google evangelism has gone down a path similar to USENET evangelism. There is the same two-step of arguing: roughly, it can be both diary/chat and journalism, thus a promoter can switch back and forth between those two concepts whenever convenient. The word “conversation” is contorted in a now familiar way, to mean mutual pontification among a tiny elite. The dream of potential stardom of a quasi-intellectual sort is dangled in front of the masses, though the only beneficiaries would be the data-mining companies profiting off the result.

When the entrepreneur Jason Calacanis offered $250,000 to have his product’s account be a “suggested link” for two years, saying, “Google has the ability to unleash a direct marketing business the likes of which the world has never seen”, that was a blunt illustration of the real dynamics at work. Though Google didn’t accept his offer, monetisation must eventually happen somehow. People aren’t being connected, they’re being bundled up and sold.

Recently, venture capitalists invested $35m (£23m) in Google (adding to an earlier $20m in funding). Such a sizable investment can buy a corresponding amount of hype. I suspect money is partially responsible for some (though by no means all) of the breathless media coverage Google has garnered.

Note the potential survivor’s bias effect. You may far more often hear from the rare person who has benefited from the service, than one who reports trying it and finding it a total waste of time. Some sceptical analysis by Nielsen Wire has pointed out that user retention is relatively low: “But despite the hockey-stick growth chart, Google faces an uphill battle in making sure these flocks of new users are enticed to return to the nest.”

Google is low-level celebrity for the chattering class. And the pathologies of celebrity are all on display, including the exploitative industries that prey on the human desire to be heard and noticed. My answer to Google’s slogan of “Are you feeling lucky?” is: “I’m not playing a sucker’s game.”

Aside from searching and replacing “Twitter” with “Google” I also replaced “IRC” with “USENET” and replaced “follower” with “visitor” and “reader”, etc.

The effect is certainly entertaining if not surprising: most of Seth’s criticism’s could be levied against Google and the web a decade ago. Admittedly, other parts don’t make any sense, but many of the overall criticisms still hold. Google’s ranking of sites is based on webmasters linking to those sites. The more links to a particular site, the more Google deems it valuable and the more exposed it becomes in Google search results and the more likely that site will retain larger number of readers.

The reason Seth’s criticisms apply to both Twitter and Google is because they are not criticisms of a certain platform or service, but criticisms of how humans filter for value in social environments. We rationally aggregate things that we consider valuable regardless of whether they’re web sites or people’s status updates. When we have tools to help us organize and discover those things, those tools are going to beat out other less efficient ones.

Twitter is filled with heaps of suckers, as Seth would put it. But the web is also filled with heaps of suckers. Sturgeon’s law applies in all mediums. Google found a way to aggregate this organize the most valuable information in an efficient matter, and it became the standard tool for discovering better information. Twitter is now helping us discover it in another medium and context: the real time short text message.

Seth seems to be worried that individual dissenting voices are being drowned out in the litany of “elite” or “celebrity” voices which are rewarded by massive numbers of followers and those voices will just be reinforced by Twitter. So what? Celebrity names and issues dominate Google’s search terms every year. This doesn’t diminish the general value of the platform.

Seth’s worry is premised on a false dichotomy. Even if there is plenty of junk on Twitter, that doesn’t mean we must ignore the platform all together. The same criticism could have been levied against Google, and even the web itself. But Seth wouldn’t know — he doesn’t actually use Twitter, he follows exactly 0 people. As Mike Masnick said, debating the value of Twitter with a non-user is like debating the value of music with someone’s who’s deaf.

For those of you who don’t use Twitter, for the record, it’s not difficult at all to calibrate one’s Twitter feed into something useful. Just choose to find the people whom you might be interested in hearing from occasionally, and ignore the rest. Just like Google.

  1. Umm … this is very funny/ironic. As in, you seem to think you are making some sort of killer slam disproving my argument, by transforming it somehow into an absurdity. But in fact, I have been making the comparable point with regard to Google for years, in everything from columns to academic writing.

    I direct you to my chapter in “The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age”:

    “Google, Links, and Popularity versus Authority”

    Just off the top of my head, you might also find apropos a recent column:

    “Google should learn the difference between real sex and spam”

    There’s plenty more, if you’re interested.

  2. Ah, the classic paper on this I think you’d want is:

    Matthew Hindman, Kostas Tsioutsiouliklis, Judy A. Johnson:
    “Googlearchy” – How a Few Heavily-Linked Sites Dominate Politics on the Web

  3. Thanks for the links Seth, I should have looked for them initially.

    Anyway, I’m not surprised you and others raised the same issues about Google previously. It makes sense.

    I don’t actually disagree with you that Google and Twitter primarily aggregrate popular information, so this isn’t some kind of ‘killer slam’. The question that is more interesting to me is whether we throw the baby out with the bathwater — does a boycott of Twitter or Google make sense in light of its usefulness in certain respects?

    You also seem intent on chalking these problems up as technological or structural ones (the way Google and Twitter are built) when they’re essentially human problems. Twitter and Google are popular tools because they make it easy for people to discover things they consider valuable. They’ve beat out tools like like USENET and IRC because succeed in offering meaningful filters and mechanisms for discovering valuable content.

    Should individuals just be more intelligent and less dependent on filters like Google and Twitter? Yes, that’d be nice, but it still doesn’t mean those services aren’t useful.

    Also, what would your alternative a short message platform be? Some people have suggested hiding follower numbers and I think that that might be a good place to start.

  4. Well, forgive me for perhaps an inadvertent strawman argument, but as far as I could make out (“most of Seth’s criticism’s could be levied against Google …”), the implicit argument you were making was something like this:

    1) Look, the criticism of Twitter can be mapped to similar criticism of Google.
    2) The mapped criticisms of Google are obviously wrong, since Google is Good.
    3) Thus, one can immediately dismiss the criticism of Twitter.

    Except the fallacy here is in #2 – the mapped criticism for Google would be something like not wanting to set up a blog and waste time blogging, disputing all the hucksterism around making money from Google ads and supposedly rocketing to the top of search results (and blog-evangelism is something I’ve criticized extensively).

    Frankly, after being on the Net for approaching a third decade now, I wish people would at least grant there’s thoughtful argument behind what I write.

    Now, “boycott” is not the right word. But my point is Twitter was hyped as being far more useful than it is, plus moreover there’s a profit motive for the hypesters. And I don’t want to be one of the suckers in their game.
    The corresponding Google-hype is again blog-evangelism, about which I feel similarly.

    Much of my writing could be said to be about “technological or structural” interactions with “essentially human problems” (i.e. Lessig, “code is law”)

    Why do I need to propose an alternative short message platform if I say I don’t want to be an unpaid exhibitionist/link-editor so someone else can make a few bucks?

  5. […] « Google is a sucker’s game that only serves the needs of a tiny elite […]

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